Will Graber has wowed all season with his ability to play just about every position. But this was jaw-dropping, even for him.
Graber scored twice within the span of 11 seconds – including one on a penalty shot – to propel the Komets to a 4-0 victory over the Cincinnati Cyclones, in front of a crowd of 7,121 on Saturday night at Memorial Coliseum.
“I thought he played a very focused and determined game. Graber, that to me was a playoff mentality. Like, he went in and just completely focused on what his job was,” said Komets coach Ben Boudreau, after watching Graber win faceoffs, lead a stalwart defense, and even survive a spear to the groin in the third period.
The Komets were so desperate for goaltending a couple weeks ago, there were jokes around the Coliseum that maybe they should put Graber in the net. But Mario Culina has emerged as a good option; he stopped 29 shots for the shutout.
“I thought we had a solid team effort the whole 60 minutes,” Culina said. “They made my night easy, kept most of the shots to the outside, and that’s all a goalie can ask for.”
It was the Komets fourth shutout of the season by four different goalies – Samuel Harvey (now in the American Hockey League with San Jose), Jiri Patera (Henderson) and Bailey Brkin (waived) also blanked opponents – and Culina has played four straight games since arriving from Brock University.
“I think he’s been real solid,” Graber said. “It’s been awesome to see that his confidence has definitely grown. You’ve seen it that every game he’s gotten better. To cap it off with a great shutout tonight – he came up with some huge saves, especially in the second period when they were knocking on the door, and he shut them out – and we were able to get a couple more (goals) and really put them away. It’s been awesome to see what he’s done and the confidence he’s playing with.”
Cincinnati’s Brendan Bonello, also a rookie, stopped 8 of 11 before he was yanked in the second period. His replacement, Sean Bonar, thwarted 17 of 18 as the Cyclones lost their fourth straight game.
It took perfect execution of a faceoff in their own end to set up the Komets for their first goal, by Graber, 7:20 into the first period. Graber won the draw back to Darien Kielb, who fed Shawn Szydlowski along the boards, and he set up Shawn Boudrias farther up the boards, and Boudrias’ backhand pass put Graber alone in front of the net for a 1-0 lead.
After the ensuing faceoff, Graber split the defense but was obstructed on the breakaway by Cincinnati’s Scott Kirton and Brandon Yeamans, setting up a penalty shot on which Graber slowed to almost a crawl and snapped a shot above the goalie’s glove.
Graber scoring twice within only 11 seconds, amazingly, wasn’t a franchise record – Garrett Meurs had goals four seconds apart in 2016 at the Coliseum. Graber was the first Komets player to score on a penalty shot since Jamie Schaafsma in 2018.
Boudrias skated out from the behind the Cincinnati net and smacked the rebound of his own backhand shot underneath Bonello for a 3-0 lead 3:30 into the second period. Kielb beat Bonar, who played a game this season for Fort Wayne, with a shot from the blue line at 12:23.
For Cincinnati (20-15-1, .569 winning percentage), Jesse Schultz got a major penalty and a game misconduct for spearing Graber during the third period. The Cyclones’ Jack Van Boeckel was booted for leaving the bench to join a later fracas.
Fort Wayne was 0 for 6 on power plays. Cincinnati was 0 for 2.
The Komets (19-12-4, .600) had the previous five days off, following a 5-2 victory Jan. 16 over the Kalamazoo Wings at the Coliseum, and that was their third-longest break of the season. The Komets had six-day breaks in October and late December, and this rest came at a great time as the Komets were in a 2-5-1 slide; had played eight games in 12 nights; and needed to find a new goalie, which they did by getting Zachary Bouthillier from the Maine Mariners for forward Nick Jermain on Thursday.
“I was tired of talking about who isn’t here and we really wanted to put the focus on who is in the lineup,” said Boudreau, whose team has been ravaged by call-ups and injuries. “We came in with a positive mindset off last week, carrying momentum, and almost using it as a clean slate. Having our bodies and our minds in the right frame here, we really came out and played as a team from start to finish and that was fun to watch.”
Said Graber: “It was nice to get a little bit of a break, come in a little fresher with a full week of practice coming off the All-Star break. We got some good rest and that definitely was helpful. It was nice to play at home, as well.”
After today’s game against the Toledo Walleye in Toledo, Ohio, the first of six consecutive road games, the Komets will have another five-day break – their final one of the season. The Walleye (23-8-2, .727) lead the Central Division and the Komets are second, their position helped by the ECHL’s decision last week to determine standings by winning percentages, instead of points, because teams have lost games to COVID-19 protocols.
It’s not clear whether Culina or Bouthillier will start at the Huntington Center, in the ECHL’s biggest rivalry. But after sitting out six weeks because Brock’s season was on hold because of the pandemic, Culina seems as if he’s in a groove.
“Yeah, of course there was an adjustment period at the beginning here,” Culina said. “But the more games I play, the better I feel out there and I just want to keep continuing to improve and growing my game every day.”
Notes: The referee was J.R. Strager. … It would have been late Komets broadcaster Bob Chase’s 96th birthday. He died in 2016. … Fort Wayne is 4-2-1 against Cincinnati this season. … Szydlowski got the 300th regular-season assist of his career with the Komets.